WHAT IS THE Dream ACT?
• The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act would provide a path to legal residency for eligible youths and young adults who are in the country illegally.
• It would give conditional non-immigrant status to people under age 30 who were 15 or younger when they came to the United States, who have lived here for at least the last five years and who have obtained a high school diploma or the equivalent.
• After 10 years, people who successfully complete at least two years of post-secondary education or military service and maintain good moral character would be given unconditional status.
• Those who fail to meet the requirements would revert to unauthorized status.
Source: Migration Policy Institute, S. 3992
WHOM WOULD IT BENEFIT?
• 726,000 young adults immediately are eligible for conditional legal status.
• 114,000 with at least associate degrees will be eligible for permanent status after after six years.
• 934,000 now under 18 will age into eligibility if they earn a high school diploma or GED.
• 489,000 persons ages 18-34 don't qualify because they lack a diploma or GED.
Source: Migration Policy Institute
Gaby woke up Dec. 18 with great hopes that something would happen that day to change her life and those of thousands of others across the country.
The U.S. Senate was going to vote on the Dream Act, a bill to legalize the immigration status of children brought by into the country illegally by their parents.
The U.S. House had approved the bill, 216-198, on Dec. 8. Senate approval would send the bill to President Barack Obama, who supported the legislation.
Gaby, a Calhoun, Ga. resident who asked to be identified only by her first name because she fears deportation, was brought to the United States when she was 12 and would benefit from the bill.
She turned on her computer, lit a votive candle and prayed to God that a miracle would happen.
She listened as a vote to cut off a Republican filibuster and move the bill to the Senate floor for passage failed 55-41, essentially killing the controversial legislation for the year.
Holding out hope
Youth here illegally remain hopeful.
The problem is they don't know how much longer they can wait.
"Whatever they do [in Congress] I have to continue fighting here," said Abril, a Chattanooga teen also here illegally who asked that her full name not be used. "I can't sit around and not do anything."
She's trying to save money so she can enroll at Chattanooga State Community College. Gaby, 20, is paying her way in an area technical college.
People who are in the country illegally can enroll in college, but they don't get any financial aid or government-subsidized loans. They also can't get a driver's license or a job -- at least not legally.
Gaby, who wants to work in hospitality management, said she has faith because God has a plan.
"There's a light inside me that I can never let be extinguished, a light that I have to keep alive," she wrote in a letter she posted on Facebook after the vote.
With Republicans in charge of the House now and having greater strength in the Senate, advocates say there's little chance the Dream Act will even be brought up for a vote.
But David Morales, spokesman for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said, "We have a very large, organized and motivated base of young men and women that continue to work for a positive outcome. We are confident it will pass eventually; ethically and economically it is the right thing to do."
Roy Beck, executive director of the immigrant-reduction nonprofit Numbers USA, said the Dream Act failed because it lacked enforcement mechanisms.
"It gave an amnesty for a problem created by major lawbreaking and did nothing to stop the lawbreaking," he said. "These students are here in their predicament because the government allowed their parents to hold jobs for years and years."
Democrats would have had a better chance of passing the bill if they had addressed it earlier, said Dalton State College political science professor Ken Ellinger.
"The Democrats had just gotten a resounding defeat in the midterm elections. So clearly, Democrats who would have won by very narrow margins, I think, feared that on the heels of health care reform and the stimulus ... this would be the thing that pushed them over the edge and make them lose in 2012," he said.
"They should have fought for it and made it a front-burner issue earlier than a lame-duck session of Congress," he added. "On the other hand, they were focused on health care reform for so long, I'm sure none of them thought it would drag as long as it did."
But Ellinger added that even had Democrats tried earlier to pass the bill, he doubted it would pass because of the political climate.
ABOUT THE BILL
While slightly more than 2.1 million people could be eligible to apply for legal status under the legislation, the Migration Policy Institute said far fewer are likely to gain permanent, or even conditional, status because of the bill's education requirements.
Applicants must complete at least a two years in a higher education institution or serve two years in the military to move from conditional to permanent residency.
"We estimate that roughly 38 percent of potential beneficiaries -- 825,000 people -- would likely obtain permanent legal status through the Dream Act's education and military routes, while as many as 62 percent would likely fail to do so," according to the institute.
Georgia is among the top 10 states for potential beneficiaries and among the top five with the highest share of people ages 5 to 34 among its Hispanic population, according to the institute's estimates.
Abril, 18, was brought to America at age 2. She dreams of joining the military, but said it's hard to remain hopeful that the Dream Act ever will pass.
Neither Gaby nor Abril believes she can go back to her native Mexico, a country ravaged by drug violence -- more than 30,000 people have died since late 2006 in battles among drug cartels and the government.
Beck, with Numbers USA, said the likelihood of the Dream Act even coming up this upcoming session is basically nonexistent unless it's part of a compromise.
"Rather than a standalone amnesty, which it was before, it would be a much narrower-crafted amnesty, part of a compromise," he said.
• That might include mandatory use of E-verify, a federal program employers can use to verify the legal status of newly hired workers;
• Do away with what he referred to as "chain migration," or Dream Act beneficiaries eventually being able to bring their parents to the United States and the parents' other immediate family members;
• And it might also mean changing birthright citizenship, which defines everyone born in the United States as a citizen, whether their parents are legally present or not. That would require amending the U.S. Constitution.
But overall, said Ellinger, "the Dream has probably died, at least for the next two years."
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...